US-China: How the News Distracts From the News

The news over the past several days has been dominated by the shooting down by the US and Canada of four objects over their airspace. Despite widespread assumptions, US officials are still trying to identify what the last three objects are. They were "not able to say who launched the objects and were seeking to figure out their origin." The first object is claimed by the US to be a Chinese surveillance balloon.

The aggressive response by the US and Canada may be news, especially since the Department of Defense "did not assess it to be a kinetic military threat," and has conceded that “whatever the surveillance payload is on this balloon, it does not create significant value added over and above what the PRC is likely able to collect through things like satellites in Low Earth Orbit.” The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has protested that “the US insist[ence] on using force [is] obviously overreacting and seriously violat[es] international practice.” General Glen VanHerck, the head of NORAD, says "I believe this is the first time within United States or American airspace that NORAD or United States Northern Command has taken kinetic action against an airborne object."

But if the North American response is news, that China may be spying on the US is not. World powers, both major and middle, spy on each other all the time. The US has satellites that spy on China. The Open Skies Treaty of 2002 even allows countries to conduct unarmed reconnaissance flights, at short notice, over other countries’ territory for the purpose of collecting information on their military forces.

NBC’s Robert Windrem calls Washington’s "appetite for China’s secrets" "insatiable." Retired Ambassador Chas Freeman, who accompanied Nixon to China in 1972, told me that the US "mount[s] about three reconnaissance missions a day by air or sea along China’s borders, staying just outside the 12-mile limit but alarming the Chinese, who routinely intercept our flights and protest our perceived provocations."

The US has recently complained that China has made it harder for American spies and that they want more intelligence on China. Windrem says that "spying on the People’s Republic of China has been one of the National Security Agency’s top priorities since it was established in 1952." The key, he says, is the surveillance partnership the US shares with the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand before he lists a menu of listening options from submarines to antennae and bugs to satellites.

In 1956, the US sent surveillance balloons over China that were exactly the same size as the balloon the US shot down in its airspace. But that is not to be the last of US surveillance balloons over China. In February 2022, Politico revealed that the Pentagon is working on "high-altitude inflatables" that would fly "at between 60,000 and 90,000 feet [and] would be added to the Pentagon’s extensive surveillance network. . . ." The Pentagon, which has spent millions on the project, hopes the balloons "may help track and deter hypersonic weapons being developed by China and Russia."

On February 13, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said "that the U.S. had flown high-altitude balloons through its airspace more than 10 times since the start of 2022." He went on to say that "US balloons regularly flew through other countries’ airspace without permission."

So, that China may be spying on the US is not news. But the news coverage of the spy balloons has distracted from what was occurring simultaneously and really was news.

It distracted from news of unimaginable proportions that should have blown the balloon off the front page and dominated the headlines.

It distracted from the barely reported news that the US had prolonged the war in Ukraine by sabotaging peace talks and sabotaging the Nord Stream pipeline. Former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s revelation that, in the first days of the war, “there was a good chance of reaching a ceasefire" but that the US and the West "blocked it" was barely reported. Seymour Hersh’s reporting on the US being responsible for the attack on the Nord Stream pipeline, an act the US knew was "an act of war," attracted almost no serious attention and elicited no outrage.

But the Chinese spy balloon also distracted from the real news on the US-China relationship. The real news was increasing US encroachment on, and hostility to, China and the failure of US attempts to draw China into the sanctions regime and to separate them from Russia.

On February 2, Representative Mikie Sherrill of he House Select Committee on Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party called China "a threat to our democracy and way of life."

But the threat came, not from China, but from the US. The same day Sherrill was calling China a threat to the US, the US was announcing the completion of a deal with the Philippines that expands US access to Philippine military bases. The US will gain access to four more bases in addition to the five to which they already have access. “With the deal,” the BBC reports, “Washington has stitched the gap in the arc of US alliances stretching from South Korea and Japan in the north to Australia in the south,” encircling China. Some of the bases, the BBC says, could be on the island of Luzon, “the only large piece of land close to Taiwan” other than China. CNN reports that the expanded access to bases “would potentially place US armed forces fewer than 200 miles south of Taiwan.” China warned that the deal will “escalate regional tension and undermine regional peace and stability.”

The US has also announced plans to deploy further Marine units to Japan and to establish a new Marine base on Guam. On February 11, the US announced that they were negotiating a Defense Cooperation Agreement with Papua New Guinea.

The US is provocatively encroaching on China much as it provocatively encroached on Russia.

The US has also failed to draw China away from Russia or to draw China into the sanctions regime against Russia.

Despite US attempts to convince China to join the sanctions on Russia, it now appears that China’s support for Russia may have gone beyond diplomatic and economic support. China may quietly be doing more than buying Russian oil.

On February 4, The Wall Street Journal reported that Chinese state-owned defense companies have sent Russia "navigation equipment, jamming technology and jet-fighter parts to sanctioned Russian government-owned defense companies." State owned and private Chinese companies have also sent other "dual-use goods" that could be used for commercial or military purposes.

Addressing the Chinese aid to Russia at a February 6 press conference, State Department spokesman Ned Price admitted to "tangible manifestations" that "the relationship between the PRC and Russia [has] in some ways . . . deepened." He said that, despite China saying their stance on the war in Ukraine is neutral, "it’s been anything but. They have provided Russia with rhetorical support. They’ve provided them with political support. They have continued their economic relationship as well."

Price warned Russia that "we’re watching very closely; there are and would be costs and consequences if we were to see a systematic effort to help Russia bypass the sanctions." He added that "there would be consequences for the provision of lethal material that Russia could then use against civilians in Ukraine" without specifying if the material China is reported to have sent Russia could be defined as "lethal."

Though it has monopolized the headlines – headlines that never include that the US spies on China in the very same way – it is not news that China spies on the US. It is news that the US sabotaged talks that could have ended the war in its earliest days, and it is news that the US sabotaged the Nord Stream pipeline, an act of war intended to help ensure that the war would go on. It is also news – and more important news – that the US is encircling China in much the same way NATO encircled Russia and that the US has failed to pry China away from Russia to the point that China is evading the US led sanctions by providing military aid to Russia.

Ted Snider is a regular columnist on US foreign policy and history at and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets.